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25th Jun 2018

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Disability and EU austerity: a Portuguese case study

  • Cristina Silva - in the background are ceramics made at Arcil (Photo: Silva, Cristina)

Cristina Silva believes the worst is over. But she cannot be sure. As executive director of a recuperation centre for disabled people in central Portugal, Silva has seen first hand how the economic crisis in Portugal is affecting society's most vulnerable.

Arcil (Associacao para a Recuperacao de Cidadaos Inadaptados da Lousa) located in the town of Lousa, about 180km from the capital Lisbon, provides a centre for care, learning, rehabilitation for disabled children, adolescents and adults.

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It is one of the many organisations which sprung up following the fall of Portugal's dictatorship in 1974. Before then, setting up such an association was forbidden.

Arcil started off catering to children only.

"Now we answer to all ages and disabilities, although it is mainly intellectual disabilities. We created different solutions to try and fulfil their needs," says Silva, who has been with Arcil for 22 years. "When they turn 16, they don't have to go somewhere else." The oldest person is 79 years of age.

There around 500 people being cared for at Arcil.

For the 36 years of its existence, it has been kept afloat financially through a mixture of state subsidies (from the education and welfare ministries), private donations and the selling of ceramics and wood products made by the people at the centre.

Funding has always been tight. The state money, for example, covers the wages and travelling costs of the expert caregivers, but not equipment. Social welfare pays for the occupational, children's facilities and residential facilities. But the actual running costs are much higher. The salaries of the 70 disabled employees are only partially paid by the state.

Since onset of the economic crisis - with Portugal implementing a swathe of austerity measures in return for being bailed out - Arcil's sources of revenue have been hit.

The state funding has not been cut but the pay-outs from ministries regularly suffer lengthy delays.

The traditional Christmas and summer extra wages have been scrapped. Staff has been reduced from 212 to 190. "Unnecessary" services have been cut and investment in new equipment, education and maintenance chopped. Sales of the ceramics and wood products - which help pay wages - have also plummeted.

"We hope we have seen the worst. We made a strong effort in 2011 and this year to reduce costs. We managed to invert the tendency. This month it is possible to see a difference in the curve," says Silva.

"Until now the government has not said it is going to cut back (on state aid) but it is always a possibility."

She notes that while the "disabled area is quite well respected" in Portugal - it gets the highest payments in social welfare - now "this is changing" as other groups seek scarce funding.

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